Scope and Content of Collection
Other Finding Aids
Title: Lou Harrison papers: correspondence
Collection number: MS 132 Ser.3
9 document boxes
University of California, Santa Cruz. University Library.
Special Collections and Archives
Santa Cruz, California 95064
Abstract: Collection includes incoming and outgoing letters from Lou Harrison and friends.
Physical location: Stored in Special Collections & Archives: Advance notice is required for access to the papers.
Languages represented in the collection:
Collection open for research.
Property rights reside with the University of California. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the records and
their heirs. For permission to publish or to reproduce the material, please contact the Head of Special Collections and Archives.
Lou Harrison Papers: Correspondence. MS 132 Ser.3. Special Collections and Archives, University Library, University of
California, Santa Cruz.
Gift from Lou Harrison 1991-2003.
Lou Harrison (1917-2003) is recognized especially for his percussion music, his work with just intonation tuning systems,
and his syntheses of Asian and Western musics. His compositions have combined instruments from various cultures and utilized
many of his own construction. His style is marked by a notable melodicism: even his percussion and 12-note works have a decidedly
Harrison spent his formative years in northern California, where his family settled in 1926. In 1935 he entered San Francisco
State College (now University), and in his three semesters there studied the horn and clarinet, took up the harpsichord and
recorder, sang in vocal ensembles and composed works for early instruments. In Spring 1935 he enrolled in Henry Cowell's course
"Music of the Peoples of the World" and began composition lessons with Cowell, who proved one of the strongest influences
in Harrison's life.
Harrison also collaborated with West Coast choreographers and in 1937 was engaged by Mills College in Oakland, California
as a dance accompanist. At Mills in 1939 and 1940, and in San Francisco, Harrison and John Cage staged high-profile percussion
concerts, for one of which they jointly composed Double Music for Four Percussionists.
In August 1942 Harrison moved to Los Angeles, where he taught music to dancers at University of California, Los Angeles and
enrolled in Arnold Schoenberg's weekly composition seminar. The following year he moved to New York. There he wrote over 300
reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, premiered (as conductor) Ives's Third Symphony, and composed works in a dissonant
contrapuntal style. But New York life proved difficult and in 1947 Harrison suffered a nervous breakdown that ultimately served
as a catalyst for a change in his compositional language. Following this traumatic event, Harrison turned more deliberately
to melodicism and pentatonicism, and embarked on studies of tuning systems. After a two-year residency at Black Mountain College
in North Carolina, he returned to the West Coast. In 1954 he settled in Aptos, California where he remained for the rest of
Studies in Korea and Taiwan in 1961-62 and an intensive exploration of Indonesian gamelan beginning in 1975 inspired Harrison
to bring Asian influences into his musical style and to write works combining Eastern and Western instruments. In 1967 Harrison
met William Colvig (1917-2000), an electrician and amateur musician who became his partner and collaborator in instrument-building
and tuning experiments. Together they built three instrument sets evoking the gamelan. In his last years, Harrison returned
more avidly to composing for Western instruments. He wrote four symphonies, various concerti, and numerous chamber works.
Throughout his life, Harrison articulated political views of multiculturalism, ecological responsibility and pacifism in both
writings and musical compositions. He and Colvig were also active politically in the gay rights movement. In addition to his
musical compositions and prose writings, Harrison, a published poet and a painter, was renowned for his calligraphic script,
and even designed his own computer fonts.
Scope and Content of Collection
Collection contains correspondence to and from Lou Harrison.
For single to two letters from the same correspondent, the correspondence is filed in a separate folder at the front of the
alphabetical letter with other single letters. Following the single letters folder, the bulk of the correspondence is arranged
in folders by correspondent's last name, chronological order within the folder.
Harrison, Lou, 1917-
Additional information may be found in these related collections held by other repositories
- San Jose State University School of Music & Dance
- Lou Harrison Archive at Mills College
- The John Cage Music Manuscript Collection, Henry Cowell Collection, New Music Society Archives, at the Music Division of the
New York Public Library
- Northwestern University Music Library, Special Collections - John Cage Collection